Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs burst onto the scene as a twenty year old kid in 2010. In his next 445 games for the Cubs, he belted out 529 hits including 96 doubles, 26 triples and 27 home runs. He looked like the brightest young shortstop in the game. Before the spring of 2013, there were legal troubles and the entire 2013 season was a wash for him offensively as everything went downhill. What went wrong with Starlin Castro and will he right himself in 2014?
If you look at the counting stats, you can see just how far Castro fell in 2014. Here are his string of OPS figures for his seasons thus far: 755, 773, .753, .631. Which number doesn't fit in there? Yeah, it is that obvious.
There are many opinions as to what happened. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs.com believes that a more patient approach was forced on him and it backfired. Another source, which I cannot seem to find at the moment, believed that BABIP was at least partially to blame.
Let's look at a couple of these insights to see what they are about. First. Sullivan makes a good point in that the Cubs encouraged Castro to see more pitches and he did. The problem, as Sullivan points out, was that Castro was very successful on the first pitch and by not swinging at the first pitch, he lost one of his best weapons.
Sullivan also shows that despite seeing more pitches, Castro did not walk any more than he did in the past and in fact, walked less. His walk rate was the lowest of his career and the strikeout rate was his highest.
The BABIP theory might be part of Sullivan's theory. Perhaps losing the first pitch to jump on, Castro's contact success suffered. If you look at Castro's heat maps for each of his years, his contact led to over a .300 average on just about every quadrant of the plate and even just off the outside corner and middle in as well.
If you look, then, at his heat map for 2013, only the upper third of the plate led to contact that was productive and just off the plate, middle-in was his happy zone. Every other quadrant of the plate was awful.
To me, the biggest "tell" is his success on line drives, or I should say the lack of it in 2013. Here are Castro's BABIPs on line drives for his career (starting in 2010): .738, .739, .716 and .593. Again, which number doesn't fit?
That is a naturally low BABIP on line drives. The Major League average is around the .660 mark. Castro has been super consistent in the number of line drives he hits per season. The difference was that in 2013, less of them found free space.
Starlin Castro also hits about 1.5 ground balls for every fly ball, or nearly 50% of his batted balls. Whether it is due to poorer contact, better defensive positioning or what, but his BABIP on fly balls also suffered. After being in the .228 to .254 range for his first his first three years, it fell off to .177 according to Baseball-reference.com.
The thing that hurts the most about Castro's season in 2013 is that he was particularly awful against teams in his own division. He was good against the Cardinals. He has always been good against the Cardinals. But look at these OPS figures against the rest of the division: Reds - .432 (!), Brewers - .599 and Pirates - .491. He has always been pretty successful against all those teams in the past.
So what does the future hold for Starlin Castro? That depends on a few things that helped cause such a bad season. Perhaps his head was in a bad space between the legal troubles last spring and the lawsuit and counter-lawsuit going on in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps he was just unlucky with his line drives and twenty more of them will fall in for him in 2014. Perhaps the Cubs will allow him to go back to hacking at first pitches. After all, he is never going to be a patient hitter. That is just not who he is.
The important thing for the Cubs is that Castro is a plus player at a thin position around the Majors if he has an OPS of .750. But another season in the .630 range will have to force them to rethink the future with him.
For the Cubs, Starlin Castro has to be better against his NL Central opponents and he has to have be better than he was in 2013. It will be one of the more interesting stories to watch in the coming season.